It’s been a year like no other.
2020: pandemics and political shenanigans, lockdowns and leaving — this is a year that no one is going to forget in a hurry.
So whilst all the tumult of this year won’t come as a surprise to anyone, fortunately for us, mySociety’s Annual Report comes out before everyone else’s, so we can get in first with the commentary and a few clichés.
In many ways we have been fortunate. We’ve experienced little operational disturbance, since we’ve always been a remote organisation where everyone works from home. But with travel disallowed and face to face meetings largely a thing of the past, there was nonetheless some disruption. It all began for us with the swift reorganisation of our TICTeC conference: we’d planned to convene in Reykjavik in March; instead we found ourselves running one of the first conferences this year to go online.
With all that 2020 brought, we kept on keeping on. We renamed our businesses, re-emphasising the importance of that little thing called ‘society’ along the way; we launched many new projects and supported hundreds of individuals and organisations to make use of our services — many of which you’ll read about in this report.
Our major theme for 2020? Mostly it’s been about preparing for the years ahead. Read on to see how we’re getting ready to face a new series of challenges, to play our small but crucial part in helping the world to take on the difficult path that lies before us.
We welcomed our new Chair, Catherine Brown. As the former Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency, Catherine brings us her invaluable experience in getting good things done.
Sadly, that meant saying goodbye to our original Chair James Cronin, who’d been involved with mySociety since its official inception back in 2003. Cheers for everything, James!
Were you aware we had an ‘official’ charity name of UKCOD (UK Citizens Online Democracy)? Well, this year we finally switched to the name most people thought we had anyway — mySociety.
And while we were at it, our commercial arm refreshed its identity too: it’s now operating under the smart new branding of SocietyWorks.
Swimming rather against the tide here, we made a stand for our users’ privacy and turned off identifiable tracking for our newsletters and websites — so now, if you click, we don’t know that it was you.
Because mySociety believes in
…we’re extending the limits of what our Freedom of Information software can do; plus we’re working with campaigns, newsrooms and organisations across Europe.
Taking the challenge. Thanks to a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, we’re building support into WhatDoTheyKnow for challenging FOI refusals … and the same functionality will be available in the Alaveteli codebase for our international partners, too.
All join in. The Nesta Future News Fund enabled us to build new capabilities into WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, allowing community newsrooms and campaigning organisations to harness help from their supporters in sorting through FOI responses.
People used WhatDoTheyKnow to make more than 85,000 FOI requests this year, which were visited more than 12 million times.
This will bring the total number of public requests, available for everyone to see, to more than 720,000 by the end of the year.
More than 77,000 requests have been made through the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service since its launch in 2017.
We’ve identified at least 76 news stories which came directly from WhatDoTheyKnow Pro users (if you know of more, do tell us!)
And, in a piece of inhouse research, we asked, who actually uses WhatDoTheyKnow?
How our users uncovered facts, backed up campaigns and revealed true stories, with Freedom of Information.
…And ample mention of @WhatDoTheyKnow as VITAL FOI tool. I cannot stress this enough - researchers and journos should never hoard data relating to new fields of exploration. Without public requests, @AfterExpProject wouldn’t have been able to prove detention of trafficking victims
And thanks to Andy Mabbett, who did useful work to link up WhatDoTheyKnow with Wikidata.
Who’s the boss? mySociety’s Research team worked with SpendNetwork on a project around beneficial ownership in public procurement for the Global Digital Marketplace team — understanding who benefits from business activities, in order to detect corruption or conflicts of interest.
It was great to work with the Government Digital Service. A project on procurement systems might sound dull, but it was really interesting working with governments in four countries to improve the transparency of the process and reduce waste, inefficiency and tackle corruption.
Rather to my own surprise, I’ve really enjoyed getting my teeth into the intricacies of the various FOI exemptions, as part of our work to make it easier for everyone to understand when and how to challenge a refusal.
We “met” some super interesting people at Dataharvest working on different investigative journalism stories, some to do with the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in Europe.
Projects and Challenging Refusals: two high-impact projects that really help people make better use of FOI.
A nice small-scale interaction was chatting to Cardiff Civic Society, and then later seeing them making regular use of WhatDoTheyKnow in their mission to help preserve public spaces in the city.
Because there seem to be increasing threats to
…we’re guiding parliaments worldwide as they increase their digital capacity, and helping to educate the next generation, too.
House and home. When something changes in Parliament, of course that has to be reflected on TheyWorkForYou. This year that meant letting our users know about the ever-changing way that voting was handled in the face of lockdowns.
With the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the United Nations Development Programme, we’ve worked with parliaments in Myanmar, Morocco, Armenia, Bhutan, Pakistan and Timor-Leste as they undergo the process of digitalisation.
Putting parliamentary services online has never been more urgent — and, aptly enough, most of the work had to be conducted remotely.
We also acted as an independent expert for the OGP IRM process, reviewing the UK government performance in developing its 2019-2021 Open Government programme.
And mySociety’s Research team worked with the Inter-Parliamentary Union on their biannual report on Youth Representation in National Parliaments — the main global resource on the topic.
We’re working alongside The Content Creatives to produce training modules that will help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to understand more about our democracy — and, importantly, how to be active within it.
Meanwhile, The Citizens’ Assemblies handbook from the RSA came out, including our research into what digital tools best complement an in-person Assembly.
After eight productive years, we said au revoir to Mzalendo, as the Kenyan team are now happy to run things all on their own.
Giving oral evidence to the Lords Committee on Digital Democracy back in March was quite rewarding, as was seeing many of our recommendations included in the final report. Digital democracy is kind of our thing, so it is always good to have that recognised by the people who govern us!
As a designer, it was fascinating to see how another country’s parliament works — and the challenges faced by MPs and their staff, in representing a citizenry with completely different economic and technological challenges.
Work we did with the Moroccan parliament demonstrated that citizens there preferred some of the changes made as a result of COVID-19, especially the move to broadcast sessions on TV.
This has enabled citizens to inform themselves and better hold their parliamentarians to account, and we have recommended that these broadcasts are continued beyond the pandemic.
Every year, we look at current events and see them reflected in our user numbers — and that correlation couldn’t have been clearer than during one week this summer.
As COVID, Black Lives Matter and Dominic Cummings’ car journey all fired up the emotions of our users, you flocked to WriteToThem.
Some of that traffic was sent to us by welcome shout-outs from unexpected sources – not just mainstream press, but teen and women’s publications too:
Grassroots Google docs—like this one about Black Lives Matter—spread quickly via social media and word of mouth, and helped people know they could use our services for good.
And the Youth Consumer Service helped young activists put together this video on how to contact your MP.
FindThatPostcode gives you data about a postcode then links off to MapIt.
Friends of the Earth used MapIt to help you understand how your own local authority is responding to the climate crisis.
Advicelocal uses MapIt to recommend independent advice on benefits, work, and housing problems across the UK.
Carbon Brief linked to questions in Parliament to inform a story about the costs of wind and solar power.
The Metro referred to a vote to explain what will happen to the Erasmus programme post-Brexit.
The Times counted how many mentions Trump has had in Parliament, and compared this to previous presidents.
Protecting ordinary people. Humanity & Inclusion want to stop the bombing of civilians in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Pernicious promotions. Badverts are campaigning to stop adverts for stuff that destroys the planet.
Lolly for the lovies. The Campaign For The Arts came together in the first lockdown, to push for a rescue package for the cultural sector.
Note this. Meanwhile the Musicians’ Union sought protection for freelancers.
Two wheels good. In an unusual commercial usage of the service, Cyclehoop encouraged people to write to the councillors to request bicycle storage for their streets.
Keep it up. The Soil Association mounted a sustained campaign against the lowering of food and farming standards.
We switched off personally identifiable tracking on our sites in March, so we can’t say for certain how many individuals visited them.
But we can see how many visits there were overall: on TheyWorkForYou, almost 8 million.
Around 230,000 of those visits were on the day after the Commons vote on free school meals, an issue highlighted by footballer Marcus Rashford.
In June, as people took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, we saw 23 times the usual visitors to WriteToThem. By the end of this year, more than 300,000 messages will have been sent through the service.
8 million visits to TheyWorkForYou
5 million TheyWorkForYou email alerts
300,000+ WriteToThem messages
If you wanna find out first whether you’re preaching to the choir or addressing somebody who’s got a questionable voting record, @TheyWorkForYou is a great starting tool.
Because mySociety believes that
... we work to provide better government services for everyone
Our public sector services business got a smart new brand, as we expand the services on offer to local authorities and beyond.
Roll call. New authorities to integrate with FixMyStreet Pro this year are Hackney, Highways England, Transport Focus, Cheshire East and — just this minute — Central Bedfordshire, bringing the total number of Pro bodies to 22.
By the end of 2020, more than 500,000 reports will have been made through FixMyStreet this year.
Trashing it. This year we’ve been getting well into the world of waste and bins — improving the online services around rubbish collection for everyone.
Turn it down. We’re fast becoming experts on noise reports, too: soon we’ll be able to provide an easy reporting interface that will help everyone get a good night’s sleep.
The team released a whole lot of refinements and new features this year — responding to our clients’ needs, but often bringing changes that are reflected on fixmystreet.com, too.
Up in the air. New ways to locate yourself on the FixMyStreet map.
Updated codebase. FixMyStreet version 3.0 was released, bringing ample new features for people running sites around the world.
Easier apps. New PWA technology means FixMyStreet can act just like an app on your phone or device.
Trees please. Pinpoint that tree precisely, thanks to EzyTreev integration.
Dock the bikes. TfL’s Streetcare added bikes to the things you can report.
Consequence scanning. Hackney have been our close partners as we explore Noise, and that’s where we first trialled our use of a nifty methodology invented by Dot Everyone.
Bins of Bromley. It’s been a pleasure working with Bromley to understand the ins and outs of wheely bins, recycling, collection rounds and everything else about their Waste service.
Signed, sealed, delivered. A new service helps people report dirty, broken, or missing road signs to Transport Focus — but don't report and drive!
Flexy for Bexley: FixMyStreet showed its ability to combine with any system when it joined up three different ones for the London Borough of Bexley.
In Your Area. Now you can see local reports on your friendly neighbourhood site.
London during lockdown TfL found FixMyStreet even more of an asset while the streets were empty.
Flaming useful Fire services reckon FixMyStreet can stop arson, too.
This week’s selection of #TraceyEmin installations around Lee and Hither Green. While the nice people at @FixMyStreet are providing some welcome publicity & mapping for them, it won’t be long before the philistines of @LewishamCouncil remove them. Catch them while you can.
Shout out to the @FixMyStreet team, doing great work to allow local issues to be raised quickly & lowering council survey costs.
Whole lot of holes.The Research Department revealed the answer to the burning question: just when is peak pothole day?
Timing is everything. They also investigated when people make reports and what that tells us.
We launched Peterborough Ezytreev integration to help them manage their tree assets. This was the first FixMyStreet integration that I did from start to finish and it went reasonably smoothly.
The Sort My Sign service is an interesting use of FixMyStreet for a specific problem.
Being part of launching SocietyWorks and contributing towards expanding the product suite to include Waste & Noise.
Because mySociety supports
...we worked hard to empower people within their own neighbourhoods
Empowering tenants. We created FixMyBlock, working alongside information and advocacy group Tower Blocks UK. Born from the desire for action after the Grenfell disaster, the site provides tools for activism around fire safety and disrepair — initially for social housing tenants, but with plans to roll out wider content in the new year.
The value of community. What does data — such as that presented in KeepItInTheCommunity — add to the community assets sector? Our research report explored that question, while making recommendations for filling gaps in the ACV process.
...with shared data standards. We banged that drum at the online LocalGovCamp — watch the session again here.
Having to run interactive workshops entirely remotely was a new thing, and I was sceptical that we would get the same kind of participation and collaboration as we do in person. But actually, I've found we get more - maybe the introverts are able to contribute more this way.
The smaller projects we’ve worked on this year give citizens the knowledge and tools they need to demand real social change.
I’ve really enjoyed the fact that FixMyBlock has such a strong and clear connection between need and empowerment.
Tenants who are having problems in their blocks can see advice clearly laid out on how to get things fixed — and then, if that doesn’t work, how to mobilise and become activists!
It was an inspiration to meet Tower Blocks UK and see how dedicated they are to improving the situation for tower block tenants.
Because mySociety cares about the
…we’re working on some of the tools you need to act on the climate emergency.
We started 2020 with a commitment to the climate.
As that includes, of course, a look at our own activities, we formed the mySociety Climate Action Group, open for any staff member to join. This group assesses ideas for improvement and recommends new policies for the organisation to take on.
Some of the things we’ve done so far (find more detail in our environment policy):
Made a decision to offset not just our travel, but all our carbon emissions.
Joined Climate Perks to incentivise sustainable holiday travel.
Committed to making the climate a primary consideration when renewing our hosting contracts.
Calculated our existing carbon footprint, so we’ll know how much progress we’re making.
Assessed third party suppliers on their climate commitments.
In January, we were able to start making good on our commitment to help those fighting climate change, providing the website for the UK’s national Climate Assembly.
On a similar note, Friends of the Earth created this tool with our MapIt API, allowing you to look up how climate-friendly your neighbourhood is.
And you’ve been using our existing services in a whole multidude of climate supporting ways. Need some inspiration? Here’s lots of it.
The Climate Assembly was important, both in terms of its potential impact on Climate related policy and as a positive example of participatory democracy. It showed that decision making could be deliberative and consensual rather than divisive and confrontational.
Working on the Climate Assembly was a rare chance to see work we’d done on the news.
The Climate Assembly work – it felt great to use some of my skills on such an important issue…
The world’s only conference exploring the impacts of Civic Technology
We’d planned our annual Impacts of Civic Tech conference as usual: we’d have been convening in Reykjavik, reconnecting with friends old and new from around the world.
In March. And we all know what happened to March.
And so, it was time for a quick turnaround: as with so many in-person events, large and small, we had to take it online (in just ten days!). We still heard from a range of knowledgeable and inspiring speakers… but they were presenting from their own homes rather than the TICTeC podium.
Nanjala Nyabola’s keynote session felt more intimate than your usual TICTeC keynote, even as she was giving us a sweeping global perspective on how the internet era is transforming politics.
And our fireside chat with our other keynote speaker, Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman, highlighted that the pandemic is an important opportunity to reimagine how civic tools can be used in a way to build civic power.
Neema Iyer from Pollicy presented their large-scale research study on the prevalence of online-based violence against women across five countries in Africa, and how this affects their access to civic technology.
Sruti Modekurty from OpenAQ talked about how their work making access to air quality data openly available has had a real impact on influencing policy, and ultimately improved the health of citizens.
Derek du Preez of Diginomica said he couldn’t stop raving about the event:
“TICTeC worked well as a virtual conference because you felt like everyone involved was ‘in the room’ and participating. It was the closest I’ve come to having an online event ‘feel’ like a real life event.”
Other notable TICTeC sessions included Civic Hall presenting their latest research on how organisations have managed to survive, and even thrive, in the difficult field of civic engagement, social change, and the digital transformation of democracy.
These examples, and the others we heard at TICTeC 2020, are just the kind of evidence-based impact and research stories we love to hear at TICTeC events, to inform the future development of civic technology.
Big kudos to @mySociety for inspiring us with an online event. I learned a ton and grateful for all the distributed expertise. A reminder that #CivicTech can be used for good and is an essential tool in this #covid19 moment of crisis. #TICTec
Taking loads away from virtual #TICTec My fave session? This afternoon hearing about @AfricanLII and @OpenAQ. So many comments relevant to the data work we do @NRGInstitute Awesome job running a virtual conference @mySociety
As a co-organizer with @CivicTechTOit is so inspiring to hear what civic tech can accomplish…but equally important to analyze why we fail 🙌
September, October, December · Online
We also kept the TICTeC flame alive through the autumn, with a series of online conversations around Civic Tech and open data’s role in global crises:
On the part that open data should have played in the pandemic.
With Karabo Rajuili, Olivier Thereaux, and Fabrizio Scrollini.
On the hasty digitalisation of parliaments around the world, in the face of COVID-19
With Julia Keutgen, Avinash Bikha, and Lord Purvis of Tweed.
On the role of Civic Tech and open data in mitigating the climate crisis.
With Rachel Coxcoon, Tom Sasse, Nati Carfi, and our own Louise Crow.
We want to take this opportunity to say a massive
Grants from these far-sighted organisations make all our development possible, fund our research and allow us to employ people who really know what they’re doing. Without this support, we quite literally couldn’t continue.
Could you support our work to help local councils deliver on their climate commitments? Read about our ongoing work here.
And, no-one knows whether conferences will be possible next year or not. But whatever the situation, whether we have to meet on screen or can enjoy seeing one another face to face, we’ll be keeping those invaluable TICTeC events going — and we’ll need sponsors.
Individual donations, both large and small, show that you understand the difference we’re making, and support us in all that we do.
We’re deeply grateful for every contribution.
You help, simply by being enthusiastic users of our sites. You contact your representatives, check and share voting records, tell your council about that pothole that needs filling or that streetlight that needs fixing, or make a request for information that puts the response in the public domain. It’s all good!
Most of all, you help by telling your friends, family, colleagues and social networks about our services. Thank you.
The past couple of years for us at mySociety have all been about consolidation and improvement. Making sure we’re working on the right things that actually help people dig into the challenges our sites and services aim to solve.
As we wrap up this year we’re in the midst of a full on strategy review, thinking carefully about the challenges that lie ahead for society and where we might make the most significant contribution. We need to continue to increase our impact especially for marginalised communities and engage in more cross-functional collaboration to make things better.
Amidst the pandemic our focus on the climate took some buffeting, but the useful foundations we’ve established this year set us up well for the rapid and determined support of communities across the UK and beyond, to get ready for the changes they’ll need to lead on.
Whilst the political and cultural impact of the last couple of years means we are refocused on the UK more than ever, our commitment to supporting our unique network of FOI services in dozens of countries remains undiminished. And the smart folks in our research team have proven that not being able to travel hasn’t held them back too much from helping a range of parliaments around the world to work out this whole digital democracy thing.
In 2021 we might even get to see each other in person again. Until then we’ll be making sure we bring new ideas and inspiration via online TICTeC activities throughout the year.
In the meantime, stay safe, take care of each other and let’s see what kind of society we can build together.
Here’s what mySociety staff hope the new year will bring.
I’m excited to spend more time digging into the challenges our sites and services aim to solve.
I hope to see increased focus on impact especially for marginalised communities and more cross functional collaboration to make things better.
I’m looking forward to working with more partners and more parliaments next year, and conducting more research on how to do digital democracy effectively.
I’m excited to see how our work strand on the climate crisis develops.
Looking forward to trying some new event formats (mostly online, but hopefully in person at some point!).
I’m interested to see if and how the commitment to antiracism manifests into action internally and externally beyond the dedicated working group members.
Thanks for reading. If you value everything that we’ve worked on this year, then please consider sending a few pounds our way. It really does help!
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